Families of detained terror suspects gathered in Nouakchott on Wednesday (June 8th) to press the Mauritanian government for answers on the whereabouts of their relatives.
Salafist prisoners were previously held at the Central Prison in Nouakchott but were recently transferred to an undisclosed location. The League of Prisoners' Relatives issued a call to human rights groups and civil society organisations seeking help in uncovering the fate of their sons.
Analysts believe the move was designed to isolate suspected terrorists and prevent them from influencing other inmates or making contact with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Journalist and security expert Yacoub Behdah explained that Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's recent statements indicated "that the transferred prisoners were placed in an isolated security zone after they had been in continuous contact, throughout their remand, with the terrorist networks and were receiving money and writing to operatives on a daily basis".
"The first reason for the transfer of prisoner is purely security-related, which is to get the Salafists to purely military zones specialised in combating terrorism, which are similar to the Algerian forces that are based in Tamanrasset to fight terrorism," said Sid Ahmed Ould Tfeil, an expert on Salafist ideology.
Ould Tfeil said that the move was part of recommendations stemming from a recent Sahel summit on counter-terrorism. "Certain information indicates that the isolated zone that Ould Abdel Aziz mentioned is located in a mountainous area separating the two provinces of Adrar and Tagant that had been previously used in conducting Mauritanian-US joint military drills near the area of Ayn as-Safra," he added.
"In addition, there is the danger of their presence with criminal prisoners who are often influenced by their thinking and are recruited into the ranks of al-Qaeda," Ould Tfeil said.
Analyst Said Ould Habib believes that the move was designed to "avoid possible attacks from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on the Central Prison to release them, especially as they include leading figures who were sentenced to death".
The transferred Salafist prisoners include eight condemned to death and eight others sentenced to terms of no less than 10 years. The location of 14 AQIM members held in connection with attacks on French tourists and the Mauritanian state remains unknown.
"The whereabouts of the Salafist prisoners, who were transferred from their prison in Nouakchott, will be revealed only to their relatives and not the lawmakers," Justice Minister Abidine Ould Elkheir said on May 30th in response to lawmakers' questions.Meimouna Mint Elheiba, sister of prisoner Maarouf Ould Elheiba, said that the Parliament must play its "moral role and pressure the authorities to bring our relatives back to us".
However, according to opposition legislators and relatives of Salafist prisoners, the justice minister has yet to inform the families.
"The two worrying issues about this matter are the disappearance of prisoners in unknown circumstances, although the law allows the relatives of prisoners to know their whereabouts," parliamentarian Moustapha Ould Bedr Eddine said. "As lawmakers, we will continue with our demands to bring the prisoners back to areas near their relatives to serve their terms."
By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott –June 6th, 2011